Two styles of Christmas worship

I’ve just returned from a brief trip to Peterborough, where I participated in two worship services:  one at my parents’ United Church, and one at nebcanuck’s Salvation Army Church. The contrast between the two services was both amusing and enjoyable.

Worship in the United Church of Canada is a culturally uplifting experience. The building is a Gothic cathedral with stained-glass windows and an impossibly high, vaulted ceiling. The music, played on a massive pipe organ, is generally classical in arrangement. The language in the hymn book has been edited to make it gender inclusive. Here’s an example from the United Methodist Hymnal:

Stanza two of Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (no. 240) was changed from “pleased as man with men to dwell” to “pleased with us in flesh to dwell.”

That’ll keep you on your toes if you’re singing from memory!

The highlight of the service was the offertory:  “What Child Is This?” played on handbells. Slow, quiet, resonantly melodic.

angelI enjoyed the service very much. It was like being lifted out of the ordinary, mundane world, and transported to a place apart, where life is lived on a sublime plane. It was easy to imagine angels listening in and approving of every note.


That afternoon, we were off to the Sally Ann with its brass orchestra. The opening number, “Jingle Bells”, was performed with rousing enthusiasm! The pastor acknowledged that it was a secular song, but he wasn’t apologizing for it.

Later we were invited to croon along with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”.

I should perhaps say that this was a special Christmas celebration — not the regular Sunday morning worship. And of course there were lots of proper Christmas carols, in addition to the pop culture tunes.

The highlight of the service was a choreographed tamborine performance with about ten participants. (Now move the tamborine from left to right in a circular motion. Now strike the tamborine against your knee, then against your hip.) The tamborines had coloured ribbon hanging from them, so the effect was partly auditory and partly visual.

Both services were well attended. Both ministers invited us to be mindful of tragedies in other parts of the world, in contrast to the joy and comforts (and excesses!) of our Canadian Christmas.

The Sally Ann service was livelier, and we spent more time singing. I didn’t have the same experience of being transported to a higher plane:  but I had more fun! Do angels really prefer United Church worship to Salvation Army worship? — I wonder.

Diversity is a good, in worship as in other things. Consider that there are some 350,000 species of beetles in the world. God loves variety.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bridgett
    Dec 12, 2007 @ 10:50:07

    Oh, love that beetle example. I am going to quote you.

    What is the United Church of Canada? Is it an anglican branch? If so, do they not follow the liturgical calendar? I’m just confused that there would be a Christmas liturgy in mid-Advent. But perhaps it is not out of the ordinary.

    I found this same sort of dichotomy in my search for a church home. The Catholic “lift you out of yourself” liturgy (when it is done well) vs. the sacrament of silence and community in the Friends Meeting House. Describing this to my parish priest later (I stayed Catholic), he mentioned that they both have the same goal. You bloom where the soil is best for your roots.


  2. Stephen
    Dec 12, 2007 @ 11:50:59

    The United Church of Canada is at lot like the Anglican Church of Canada. But the Episcopal Church in the USA might have be different; I don’t know.

    My parents’ church was certainly celebrating advent, but the hymns were traditional Christmas songs. I’ve never been part of a “high” church, so I’m not sure what is included in an Advent liturgy. The United Church is marginally more liturgical than a typical evangelical church would be, but still far down the line from a Catholic mass.

    I’m glad you liked my beetles example. It’s original to me, as far as I know. It was my first thought when I learned how many species of beetles there are.


  3. Random
    Dec 12, 2007 @ 18:53:12

    “I’m glad you liked my beetles example. It’s original to me, as far as I know.”

    Afraid not, though you’re in good company – the famous biologist and geneticist JBS Haldane was once asked (by a theologian) what could be deduced of the mind of God by studying his creation. Haldane replied that the Almighty seemed to be possessed of “an inordinate fondness for beetles”…

    Liked the story BTW – a very good demonstration that there s a place for both high and low church traditions in our lives.


  4. McSwain
    Dec 12, 2007 @ 22:15:24

    I think sometimes the response to style of service depends on the worshipper–our expectations, what type of music moves us, etc. Although I must say I probably would have been taken out of the worshipful moment by the more secular Christmas tunes.


  5. Juggling mother
    Dec 13, 2007 @ 08:30:46

    “Consider that there are some 350,000 species of beetles in the world. God loves variety”

    Or perhaps God just loves beetles? There are not so many varieties of anything else:-)

    (I can’t remember who it was who said God loves beetles)

    Glad you felt uplifed and had fun. Although it would’ve been better if you could have felt both at once:-)

    I’m getting bombarded with “Away in a Manger” and “Little donkey” at home, not to mention the never-ending game of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus (sometimes inside Mary’s tummy, even when being played by a real child!), so it’s only fair that you get secular songs at Church.


  6. Random
    Dec 13, 2007 @ 09:12:12

    “(I can’t remember who it was who said God loves beetles)”

    JM, see my earlier post – number 3 in this thread…



  7. Stephen
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 07:07:32

    • Random:
    Actually, I had come across that saying before, but I had forgotten. Thanks for reminding me of it: it amuses me.

    • McSwain:
    I didn’t find that the secular songs broke the mood. But it wasn’t exactly a worship service; more like a celebration of Christmas. I appreciate that the church didn’t feel they had to make a show of being spiritual, but could meet the community part way by enjoying the “unchurched” songs along with the explicitly Christian ones.

    • Juggling Mother:
    Or perhaps God just loves beetles?

    You’re quite right, of course. One could argue that God must dislike variety, or he wouldn’t have spent so much of his creativity on a single insect.

    (I’m imagining angels again: What’s this then? Oh, no, not another species of beetle!)

    But really, it wasn’t intended as a theological argument. Just a bit of whimsy, suitable to illustrate a conclusion that I had already arrived at on other grounds.


  8. Bridgett
    Dec 16, 2007 @ 01:37:34

    Thanks for explaining!


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